Research Projects

Weibling Project Research Projects

 

Faculty members, law students, and graduate students at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln conduct a variety of discrimination research projects under the auspices of the Weibling Project. The research topics vary in content, method, and level of application, but all focus on the underlying psychological and social mechanisms that help us to understand possible forms and types of discrimination in a variety of everyday life activities.

First, the staff of the Center invites all clients who seek legal and/or psychological counseling to participate in online research that describes the experiences that led them to contact the center for assistance. Clients who agree to participate in these applied research projects complete surveys about the social, emotional, and cognitive processes that either result from discrimination problems or that are the causes of discrimination. The results of this work will better enable center counselors to assist people and organizations to prevent and ameliorate problems related to discrimination.

Second, faculty and doctoral students conduct separate basic social science studies that help us understand the causes and effects of unfair treatment based upon gender, race, sexual orientation, disability, aging, ethnicity, race and religion. These studies examine the underlying mechanisms that form the basis for potential acts of discrimination as recognized under the law or not recognized under law, but that could result in disproportional costs or benefits because of the social categories to which people belong. The results of this work help center educators communicate to the public about what can be done to remove potential sources of discrimination from society more generally.

Third, Center researchers study the origins and impact of stigma and bias against those with both visible markers (race, age, and gender) and invisible markers (sexual orientation, religion, and mental illness). These projects examine the psychological sources of stigma and bias, ways to reduce stigma and bias, and the impact of stigma and bias on social functioning. Some of these projects involve partnerships with local and national organizations that have designed interventions to lessen the prevalence and the effects of stigma and bias against people with both visible and invisible markers. The goal of much of this work is to learn how to train people to avoid stigmatizing others and to deal more effectively with bias and stigma directed against them or their close associates.

Fourth, law and psychology faculty and students study processes of legal decision making in an effort to understand how courts, government agencies, jurors, judges, and others resolve conflicts that arise from cases of alleged discrimination. The Law and Psychology Program at the University of Nebraska has a long and successful track record of conducting ongoing legal decision making studies to determine how people think about and make decisions about civil and criminal complaints related to a variety of areas of conflict resolution in law and legal process. These studies include investigations of consumer financial decision making, lawyers' judgments about the law in specific cases, jurors' use of (or misuse) of the law to reach decisions, and judges' decisions both when they serve as fact finders and as legal arbitrators. The Weibling Project studies use these types of research to understand how judgments are reached in cases involving allegations of discrimination. The results of this work will enable center legal staff to better serve the public in the area of allegations of discrimination.

The Weibling Project faculty and students are committed to disseminating the results of our work at national conferences in the forms of professional presentations, peer reviewed journal articles in social science journals, law review articles when appropriate, and book chapters in our own edited versions, as well as chapters in volumes edited by other scholars. Some of our work is displayed with links on our own website ( News and Events ). The research conducted at the Weibling Project meets the highest scientific standards in the fields of law/psychology, social psychology, clinical psychology, and organizational science. Weibling researchers carefully separate the work that they complete as advocates, educators, and counselors from their research efforts. The goal of the research is to investigate theories and models that pertain to allegations of discrimination using rigorous methodologies that offer objective results independent of the policy views of the Weibling Project faculty and students.

 

 

 

 

Weibling Project Research Activities

 Experience of Discimination

Emotional, Motivational and Cognitive Experience of Discrimination

Weibling Project staff invites all clients who seek services (legal or psychological counseling) to participate in our ongoing research projects regarding the experience of discrimination. During the initial interviews the legal and clinical staff collects information from the clients to develop detailed descriptions of allegations of discrimination that they bring to the Center. If the client consents, researchers code these descriptions along legal and psychological dimensions and enter them into our research data base for further analyses. The clients complete several psychological inventories regarding their functional well-being, their cognitive and emotional appraisals of the events that they have described, their motivational or regulatory focus with respect to the allegations (how they wish to resolve them), and their lay understandings of the type and severity of the discriminations that they believe that they have experienced. The research team will first develop a psychological taxonomy of discrimination that examines the cognitive, emotional, and motivational links that describe different experiences of discrimination. Later, it will test the influence of different types of psychological reactions on the outcomes of the cases and the relationships between these factors and injuries that clients suffer. The goal of this work is to develop a more thorough understanding of discrimination antecedents and outcomes both for the purposes of assisting people to respond in the most effective way possible to unfair treatment, testing the fit between legal doctrine and the experience of discrimination, and learning how discrimination disturbs people's emotions, motivations, and general well-being.

Stigma and Discrimination against the Mentally Ill

The Americans with Disabilities Act 42 U.S.C. §12101 et seq. prohibits covered agencies (including private employers, public entities, and government agencies) from denying accommodations for persons who suffer from disabilities. Unfortunately, the statute provides little definition of central concepts such as disability andreasonable accommodation so that the courts have had a great deal of leeway in defining those critical terms in their cases. Nonetheless, the ADA may be the best effort so far to prohibit bias against those with disability including mental illness. Such bias continues to be a significant barrier preventing the mentally from receiving adequate care and social accommodation. To be effective in dealing with discrimination, it is important for researchers to learn how people diagnosed with mental illness are marginalized in society through a social construction process. Non-afflicted people separate themselves from disabled people using labels and stereotypes to maintain a psychological separation to assure that they are not treated similarly. This public stigma often prevents people with mental illnesses from seeking appropriate treatment and services. To examine the effect of labeling people as mentally ill, we are engaged in a project in which people recalled or imagined an individual simply labeled with mental illness and an individual with described symptoms of that mental illness but not labeled. Participants completed a social distance measure and rated each individual on 17 dimensions that prior literature has shown to describe common conceptions about those with mental illness . While we hypothesized that participants would have more negative attitudes toward and be less likely to approach individuals labeled with a mental illness than individuals whose symptoms were described, we found a much more complex pattern of results. For example, an individual labeled with "bipolar" disorder, was more likely to be perceived as dangerous, the cause of problems at work, and severely ill, than the individual with described symptoms of bipolar disorder. Yet, an individual labeled as "bipolar" was less likely to be considered at fault and more likely to have control over his/her mental illness. Bias triggered by other mental illnesses followed similar complex patterns. Ambivalent attitudes and behavioral tendencies toward the mentally ill are a barrier for adequate care and social accommodation. We are in the process of studying these beliefs and examining how they contribute to tendencies to avoid people who have mental illness complaints.

In a related graduate student project focusing on the relationship between anxiety and stigma associated with seeking mental health services we are studying whether individuals who seek treatment for a variety of mental health problems in an outpatient clinic are fearful that others will find out they are seeking such treatment or that they have a diagnosis of a mental disorder. We are hypothesizing that such concerns may lead to heightened social anxiety in certain situations.

 

Social Anxiety and Sexual Minorities

Weibling Project faculty and students are examining whether gay, lesbian, and bisexual people experience heightened social anxiety because of fears of prejudice and discrimination based on their sexual orientation. There is some evidence that fears of negative evaluation and avoiding certain social situations (social anxiety) is higher in sexual minorities. However, we hypothesize that at least some of these fears may not be irrational fears normally associated with social anxiety but rather a realistic assessment of the risks of others finding out that someone is gay, lesbian or bisexual. A secondary study is examining the content of daily worries to determine whether it is related to sexual orientation or not. A major data collection effort in this line of research with 75 individuals who identify as sexual minorities has been completed and the results are being dissiminated with funding from the Wayne Placek Fund of the American Psychological Foundation and from the Weibling Project.

 

Reducing Bias Because of Race, Ethnicity, Sexual Orientation, and Mental Illness

The Law and Psychology program at the University of Nebraska in conjunction with the Plains States Regional Office of the Anti-Defamation League have formed a partnership to provide broad based training to reduce bias against others based on race, ethnicity, disability, gender, age, sexual orientation, and mental illness. The Anti-Defamation League's A WORKPLACE OF DIFFERENCE ® comes to the table with the expertise in combating hate, bias and discrimination in the workplace.  The University of Nebraska/Lincoln brings their expertise in studying bias and prejudice against all individuals in the workplace.  Together, we are conducting a controlled field experiment to study the mechanisms responsible for bias against others and to study intervention techniques to help reduce the negative impact of those biases. The project is utilizing the Anti-Defamation League's A WORKPLACE OF DIFFERENCE ® training which helps adult workers to examine their negative biases against others in order to reduce these prejudices. The service delivery staff are ADL trained facilitators who themselves have participated in multiple A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE ® Institute programs and who are experts in diversity training in a variety of arenas (i.e., mental disability stigma, ethnic discrimination, racial prejudice, and religious intolerance, and bias due to sexual orientation). The project will require participants to participate in one of two different types of sessions, one targeting general bias in the workplace and community and the other targeting bias against people with mental illnesses. The sessions consist of exercises in which the participants will learn about some of the origins of bias including: 1) society's structure of prejudice, 2) strengths and weaknesses that we all take with us to work, and 3) unchallenged assumptions that we hold about others. At the beginning of some of the sessions and at the end of all the sessions the research team from the University of Nebraska will measure explicit attitudes, implicit attitudes, experienced emotion, anticipated emotion, and reactions to hypothetical encounters with minorities, elderly, members of minority religions, the mentally ill, and GLBT individuals. The effort will test a model that explains where bias comes from and how we can reduce it.

 

Legal Decision-Making Models of Discrimination

Weibling Project faculty and students conduct ongoing research to explain the way in which lay people, jurors, attorneys, judges, and other actors decide issues related to allegations of discrimination. These projects concern sexual harassment, age discrimination, disability discrimination, and a variety of other types of allegations that people make at a number of levels. For example, supported with funds from the National Science Foundation, several of the Weibling faculty and students are currently examining under what conditions workers perceive social sexual conduct at work as sexual harassment in cases in which women complain about male coworkers and in other cases when men complain about other male coworkers. The study, which includes a realistic interview of complainants who vary in gender and race, tests the impact of two different types of standards (reasonable person vs. reasonable victim) on workers' perceptions of the complaints.

At the same time, we are conducting mock juror studies to determine the likely impact of the United States Supreme Court ruling in Gross v. FBL Financial Services , 2009, in which a 54-year-old claims administrator working for the FBL Financial Services relied on a mixed-motive theory in an age discrimination case that he brought under the Age Discrimination and Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967. The Court ruled that causality under the ADEA must be "but for causality" which does not allow for liability when some component of the cause is legitimate and some component is based unfairly upon age. Absent any intervention from Congress, the ADEA as currently written and interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court considers causality in age based disparate treatment cases to be "but for causality," and therefore requires that the plaintiff show that age was the cause in fact of the adverse impact and not simply a contributing factor. In summary, the mixed-motive model and jury instruction is currently not available in age discrimination suits but is still a viable theory in sex, race, ethnicity, and religion cases. Our research is examining how jurors could make use of different causal models to reach judgments about discrimination.

 

Evaluating and testing proposed and existing policy interventions

The Weibling Project adheres to the philosophic perspective of Therapeutic Jurisprudence, which lies at the intersection of law and psychology. Following that approach, the Weibling Project studies existing and recommended policy interventions, legislative actions, and specific forms of litigation that advance the well-being of individuals who come into contact with the law. According to Bruce Winick, one of originators of this philosophy, Therapeutic Jurisprudence views law as "a therapeutic agent..." It is concerned with "... legal rules, legal practices, and the way legal actors (such as judges, lawyers, government officials, police officers, and expert witnesses testifying in court) play their roles to impose consequences on the mental health and emotional wellbeing of those affected." It is incumbent upon legal practitioners and researchers to apply principles of Therapeutic Jurisprudence to demonstrate the mental health and improved social functioning benefits of diversity at work, school, and in community environments (e.g., housing). Weibling Project professionals and trainees interact with victims of discrimination in a way that promotes the victims' social well-being and encourages improved functioning.

One way in which the Weibling Project advances its therapeutic aims is to conduct evaluation research to determine whether disparity exists in organizations, and if it does, to develop ways to reduce its incidence and impact. Furthermore, evaluation of existing programs in courts, government agencies, and private sector organizations that have as their goals elimination of discrimination is a specific way in which the Weibling Project embraces the tenets of Therapeutic Jurisprudence. After examining existing and new research, members of the project team propose and begin to test policy innovations, legal interventions (e.g., applying models of civil redress in cases of discrimination) and legal decision-making models that address problems of mental disorder, which arise out of the experience of discrimination. One of the featured purposes of this work is to plan program evaluation studies of the effectiveness of existing policies and legal models designed to decrease the effects of mental illness stigma that result from the experience of discrimination.